The U.S. Department of Labor reported in February that the nation’s unemployment level is at a 54-year low. Most people willing to work can find a job, and competition for these workers is fierce.
Missouri schools employ about 100,000 certified staff members, including teachers, administrators, counselors, librarians and nurses. If you add noncertified school employees, the number of school district employees reaches nearly 200,000. This pool of excellent workers has not gone unnoticed by other industries, and school leaders struggle to retain them.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reports that in the 2021-22 school year, out of 71,587 full-time teaching positions in Missouri, 5% or 3,579, were filled by “inappropriately certified” teachers or were left vacant. Historically, Missouri schools have relied on a veteran teacher corps with relatively few teachers leaving the field. It was common for many teachers in most school districts to teach for 30 years or more before retirement.
The new generation of school employees replacing them, and the climate in which they work, is very different. DESE data show that only 46.5% of Missouri beginning teachers remain as a teacher after five years. Of Missouri’s eight bordering states, Missouri has the lowest average teacher starting salary, at $33,234. This salary issue is not unique in Missouri. The Economic Policy Institute calls the compensation issue the “teacher pay penalty.” Simply put, teachers are paid less than their nonteacher college-educated counterparts, and the situation is worsening over time.
The politics of education has also played a role in causing many school employees to seek new careers outside of education. Missouri, traditionally, has taken steps to keep politics out of education and is considered to have strong local control with locally elected school boards given exceptional power. School board elections are nonpartisan and held in April to avoid the partisan tensions that often boil over in the August and November elections. Partisan appointments to the Missouri State Board of Education are limited. Unfortunately, schools and education are becoming a common focus of the culture wars. Many school employees look at the challenges of working in schools and have chosen to transition to careers that will pay more, provide more flexibility, and involve less stress and conflict.
With these issues facing educators, how can schools compete for employees?
Over the last eight years, my research agenda at Missouri State University has focused on the growing trend of schools transitioning to a four-day school week. A group of legislators in 2010, primarily from rural parts of the state, offered the four-day school week as legislation to allow local schools to be innovative in school operations. Schools, by going to a four-day week, had to maintain the same number of instructional hours, which is typically done by longer school days. While early adoption focused primarily on cutting costs, financial savings were typically minimal.
Very slowly, the number of Missouri four-day week schools grew, not primarily for financial reasons but because schools found it an effective way to recruit and retain high-quality employees. Recently, the number of four-day week districts in Missouri has exploded. This school year, over 27% of Missouri public schools use the four-day week; it will exceed 30% next year.
While nearly all the four-day school week districts in Missouri are small rural schools, this is beginning to change. The two largest four-day week districts in Missouri are Warren County and Marshfield – both have more than 3,000 students. Next year, the Independence School District, with over 14,000 students in suburban Kansas City, will implement the four-day week. Early reports from Independence show that job applications are up in the district by over 500% from previous years.
None of the schools that have adopted the four-day school week has made the switch without considering how it will impact their kids or families. Of the 146 districts that have voted to transition to a four-day week, only one reversed the decision. Admittedly, the strategy is based on the gamble that by going to the four-day week, students will have higher-quality teachers in their school.
Since instructional minutes are the same on a five-day or four-day week, teacher quality is an important variable that can drive learning. The four-day school week is not the problem; it is a symptom of a collection of problems.
The key question is, why have we gotten to a point in Missouri education where it is necessary for schools to go to a four-day week to attract and retain high-quality teachers in our classrooms?
Jon Turner is an associate professor of counseling, leadership and special education at Missouri State University. He can be reached at
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